ON CHESIL BEACH (2018)

May 30, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those movies that has the look and feel that leaves me believing I should like it more than I do. Ian McEwan (the excellent ATONEMENT) adapted the screenplay from his own novel, and it’s by no means a cookie-cutter story. The feature film debut of director Dominic Cooke features one of today’s most talented leading ladies, a strong supporting cast, and some stunning outdoor scenery from a very beautiful part of the globe.

The story kicks off in 1962 England with a setting that could easily be a one-Act stage play. We are in a hotel room immediately after the ceremony of a newlywed couple. Awkward movements and forced conversation are interrupted by a formal dinner being served in the room by two waiters. The expected post-dinner gawkiness leads to a bedroom scene ravaged by emotional trauma that goes far beyond inexperience. It’s disastrous and leads to full disclosure along the shoreline of Chesil Beach, Dorsit.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Florence and Billy Howle is Edward. Through flashbacks we witness both their budding romance as eager youngsters, as well as pervious childhood moments that now seem to matter. We learn Florence is Mozart, while Edward is Chuck Berry. Maybe opposites do attract, however, the class differences become more obvious as we meet the respective parents. Florence’s mom (Emily Watson) and dad (Samuel West) are upper crust types who don’t take kindly to her infatuation with one not of their ilk. Edward’s dad (Adrian Scarborough) is a school teacher and his mother (a marvelous Anne-Marie Duff) is an eccentric artist, “brain-damaged” in a freak train accident.

Florence and Edward are victims of their time … a time of sexual repression, where such conversations simply did not occur. It’s not so much a story of rejection as it is of being not accepted, though it’s clear how childhood led each down their path. Had the film remained focused on this fascinating story line, it likely would have been better received by this particular viewer. Instead, we are subjected to an ending that crashes and burns as it attempts to provide resolution for characters that should have none. A flash forward to communal living in 1975 and a 2007 farewell concert at the beautiful and historic Wigmore Hall (opened in 1901), are little more than a show of disrespect to those viewers who invested in the unfortunate tale of Florence and Edward.

watch the trailer:


BELLE (2013, UK)

July 12, 2014

belle Greetings again from the darkness. Always a bit partial to films based on a true story, I would have to label this as a fictionalized historical period piece, and a step above most costume dramas (though the costumes here are quite stunning). While it’s a very attractive movie to look at, I was a bit frustrated at the multi-directional approach that just skimmed many topics.

The movie could have focused on the relationship between cousins Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Or it could have zeroed in on the unusual complexities raised by the illegitimate mixed race Belle being raised in British Aristocracy. Still another option would have been digging into the historical impact of Zong massacre and the subsequent arguments, court trials and appeals. Instead, we get a splash of each … which leaves the viewer wanting more detail on all three.

The cast is very strong and features Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Court … he raises Belle at the request of his nephew (her father). Lord Mansfield’s wife is played well by the always excellent Emily Watson.  Also featured are Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton (always entertaining), James Norton, Sam Reid, and Tom Felton – who creates yet another despicable character to go with his Draco from the “Harry Potter” series.

Maybe the best term for this is historical melodrama, as the courtroom decision comes across as anti-climatic, with more third act attention paid to Belle’s love interest (Mr. Reid). Very little is known of the actual Dido Elizabeth Belle, but it seems clear that her role in the Zong trial was dramatically enhanced for the purposes of the film. In fact, more drama may have played out for the film’s writing credit between the director Amma Asante and the WGA. Though the director lost the writing credit, she can be proud enough of the final product.  The two cousins are featured in the famous 1779 painting (see below) that inspired the story.

1779 painting

 

 


THE BOOK THIEF (2013)

December 1, 2013

book thief1 Greetings again from the darkness. You may be familiar with the source material – the huge best selling novel from Markus Zusak. If not, you may be surprised at the “through the eyes” of an illiterate, orphaned child’s perspective of the German home front during WWII. You may be more surprised to learn that it’s narrated by The Grim Reaper (British actor Roger Allam), and includes a Nazi rally, book-burning, bomb shelters, a look at the anti-Jew and anti-Communist movements, the German conscription/military draft and the dangers associated with hiding a Jew in one’s basement (with similarities to “The Diary of Anne Frank”).

book thief2 There is no denying the melodramatic nature of the story and the presentation from director Brian Percival, but this one avoids schmaltz thanks to the remarkable performances of the internationally diverse cast led by the great Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, and especially Sophie Nelisse as the incredibly perceptive Liesel who provides the innocence and powers of observation that prove to us (and Death) that good people will do extraordinary things no matter the atrocious conditions. Another young actor to keep an eye on is Nico Liersch, who plays Liesel’s Aryan schoolmate Rudy … a dreamer who imagines himself as Jesse Owens (not a popular view among the Nazi powers that be).

book thief 3 As Liesel’s foster parents, Rush plays a warm-hearted WWI veteran, and Watson plays a cantankerous, grounded woman hiding the emotion she carries for her husband and new daughter. The biggest piece of hiding involves Max, a young Jewish man who is the son of a soldier who once saved the life of Rush’s character. Max and Liesel have a wonderful bond as he teaches her to speak through her eyes and she nurses him back to health by sharing her new found joy of reading.

The ghost of the boy who lived in the shadows … from H.G. Wells “The Invisible Man” plays a key role as Liesel tries to make sense of a world that delivers a daily dose of relentless danger. As she develops her love and dependence on the written word, it’s clear that to survive in these times, one must have something that provides hope. The unusual story structure with the odd narrator, and a mix of wry humor, keep us connected with the characters and allows the humanity to shine through. Still, I challenge you to watch this without a lump in your throat.

**NOTE: the score is from the great John Williams, who once again excels in complimenting emotional storytelling.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the melding of a child’s innocence and strength can be enough to overcome the pain and shame of seeing how the Nazi movement affected so many, at least for a two hour period.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you care not to revisit any of the suffering and caused by WWII (even if it’s within a story of personal strength and survival)

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92EBSmxinus


ANNA KARENINA (2012)

December 9, 2012

anna Greetings again from the darkness. We are all familiar with the phrase “All the World’s a Stage”, and director Joe Wright and writer Tom Stoppard twist the phrase into “All the Stage is the World” in their re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy‘s literary classic. With a bold and ambitious vision, the story plays out mostly within the confines of a theatre … utilizing not just the stage, but the rafters, backstage and all nooks. This is pulled off in a most operatic manner with heavy production, remarkable sets and costumes, and the use of curtains and doors for a change of scene. Additionally, most of the actors move like dancers and, at times, the dialogue delivery borders on musicality.

Tolstoy’s story has been adapted for the screen in more than two dozen versions, including two from screen legend Greta Garbo (1927, 1935). Who better to take on the role of Anna than Keira Knightley, the ultimate period actress of our generation. It’s her anna2third film with Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) and by far, the least traditional in presentation. This version focuses on the affair between Anna and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass), and her resolve in tossing aside her standing in Russian high-society … and even giving up her son.

We do gets bits and pieces of the other story lines: Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) provides some comic relief from the start despite his extra-marital wanderings from his wife (Kelly Macdonald); the stoic determination of the bureaucrat Karenin (Jude Law) as he insists on maintaining the proper illusion; and the down-to-earth landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son) with his pursuit of perfect farming and the beautiful Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Some viewer anna4disappointment creeps in when we realize that Levin’s story is minimized here for the torrid love affair of Anna and Vronsky. Levin’s story is allowed to sneak outside the theatre setting … presumably since he is the only character living in the real world.

Tolstoy’s powerful story is stymied to some degree by the lack of sympathy we feel for Anna … while we certainly understand her lack of connection to the cold Karenin, we never sense more than a physical attraction and unreasonable wish between she and Vronsky. The strength of the story stems from Anna’s knowing willingness to surrender her anna3place in society for the sake of what should interprets as true love. When one of the society ladies states she could forgive Anna for breaking the law, but not for breaking the rules, we fully comprehend what a ridiculous state those in high society exist.

It’s difficult to imagine a wide acceptance of this unique presentation; however, the technical aspects of the film deserve much Oscar consideration – cinematography, set design, costumes, etc are all first rate. And Keira Knightley proves again that costume dramas are where she is at her best.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you thought all possible presentations of literary classics had been explored OR you need further proof that no actress today seems more natural in the unnatural costume dramas than Keira Knightley

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: film interpretations of the elite literary classics leave you with an empty feeling

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPGLRO3fZnQ


WAR HORSE

December 28, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg provided us with one of the most horrific and terrifyingly realistic and violent examples of war ever shown on screen. Here, he takes a much different approach. Though the bulk of the movie takes place during World War I, Spielberg manages to withhold the brutal atrocities, while never once losing the impact and fear experienced by the soldiers. And while it’s uncertain whether this approach makes for a better film, it is obviously a more accessible and uplifting story because of it.

 Based on the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and of course on the hugely successful stage runs in both London and New York, this movie is really the story of an unbreakable bond between a sincere farm boy named Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) and a majestic horse named Joey. We witness the early bonding and training sessions between the two, which allows us to swallow some of the more improbable coincidences that occur later in the story. When the war breaks out, Albert’s dad (Peter Mullan) sells the horse to the cavalry so that he can save the farm by paying the landlord (David Thewlis). Fortunately, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) agrees to keep Joey as his personal horse and return him to Albert after the war.

 War is unpredictable, and Joey gets passed from the British to the Germans to a French farmer’s daughter, back to the Germans and back to the British. Along the way, we witness what a remarkable creature the horse is. Were he a man, he would be a most decorated officer. Instead, we witness how little value the military places on animals … even the beautiful ones. There are numerous scenes that make will make you uncomfortable with the cruelty shown, but just as many that will make you smile with joy. The already famous scene that features Joey’s unfortunate conflict with barbed wire and fence posts will have you squirming in your seat, while also scratching your head in wonderment.

 Though many of the events and sequences are a bit of a stretch to believe (the time-out in No Man’s Land), the one thing you will never doubt is the beauty of the film. It’s epic nature recalls Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia (though not at the overall level of either of those films), and the photography reminds me of John Ford‘s best work. Off the top of my head, I would say it is the most beautifully photographed movie since Terrence Malick‘s Days of Heaven in 1978. Spielberg’s long time DP Janusz Kaminski is at his best here and will surely be recognized by the Academy for his cinematography.

 Many of the British actors are recognizable (Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan, David Kross), but it’s key that Spielberg cast no “movie stars”, only quality actors. The stars of the film and the story are the horse and the visuals. It should also be noted that the great John Williams delivers another perfect score … one that would run away with the Oscar in many years.

No need to be frightened off because the story is based during World War I. It’s not for the youngest of kids, but this is an uplifting, sentimental and emotional movie for most everyone. It is peak Spielberg working with sentiments and subject matter with which he so excels.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy being swept away by the emotions and grand scale of an epic film OR you would like a primer to war films that goes a bit easy on the gore.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting similar war reality to Saving Private Ryan OR you have a hard time suspending disbelief for some rather remarkable coincidences

watch the trailer: